Originally posted on the Diversity in YA blog by Laura Goode
I like to call my YA novel, Sister Mischief, the world’s first interracial gay hip-hop love story for teens. It’s hardly news to anyone reading this blog that young adult literature has historically suffered a dearth of queer protagonists and strong, whole characters of color. Including those identities in my novel was important to me, but as a white woman who’s in a committed relationship with a man, part of me wondered, am I entitled to borrow these skins?
While I was writing SM, I thought a lot about a phenomenon I’ve come to call the Good White Person Syndrome (GWPS). GWPS involves not just being a honky with positive values about race, but more sensitively, figuring out how to convey to others, especially people of color, that you are not a racist like Bad White People are. To be a GWP, you must banish the following phrases from your vocabulary:
“Some of my best friends are [insert non-white ethnicity here].” “Can I touch your hair?” “[Insert non-white ethnicity here] babies are SO ADORABLE.” “No, but where are you FROM?”
Early on in my editorial career, I worked on a series that featured a group of friends. The characters were already somewhat diverse (I think out of five or six main characters, two were characters of color), but I suggested to the freelance editor the possibility of adding one more. She said she’d consider it, but was leaning towards not, because wouldn’t it feel too forced and unrealistic?
I think as adults, we’re perhaps too aware of examples of this “forced multiculturalism”—TV shows, movies, books where there’s one black, one white, one Asian, one Latino character, etc. But as a kid, I never saw this as a bad thing—I wanted it, forced or not—and to many kids (and adults), it isn’t unrealistic and it isn’t forced. It’s an accurate mirror of their own experience.
When I was in high school in Southern California, my group of friends included kids from almost every ethnic group. As a young adult working at Barnes & Noble in downtown Oakland, my group of bookseller friends was also very naturally diverse. One of my coworkers, who referred to himself as Chicano (he told me this meant he was the child of Mexican immigrants born in the United States—but as Wendy mentioned, it’s ever-changing!), told me that when he was a kid, he had two best friends, one was black and one was white. Not a far cry from Bill Konigsberg’s characters in Out of the Pocket.
My most recent novel is Openly Straight. It will be published by Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic) in June of 2013. I came to write it because I was exploring the coming out experience for LGBT folks like myself. I wondered why it is that gay people have to constantly label ourselves in a way that seems to overshadow every other aspect of our identities, and how unfair it is that we must continue to do this all our lives. I was interested in the idea that we are being dishonest if we choose to highlight a different label. I felt (and feel) that there are tons of books about the process and value of “coming out,” but precious few about what happens after we do.
Do you think of yourself as a diverse author?
As an author who believes there is great power in diversity of thought and experience, I am definitely a diverse author. In my first novel, Out of the Pocket, I wanted to make sure that my cast of characters reflected the diversity of our culture. In that novel, my main character is a gay Caucasian male. His best friend, Austin, is half Mexican and half Caucasian. His other best friend, Rahim, is African American. I do think that there is a tendency in young adult fiction to whitewash our culture, which may relate to the fact that a high percentage of YA authors are white. In each of my books, I make a point of showing racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity. I do this because I think it is so important for teens to see themselves reflected in literature.
When I joined this committee in January I jumped into the middle of a discussion that’s full of terms and ideas I need to think about.
As I read through various blog posts I was struck by the different points of view, even on the use of “diverse,” and “diversity.” For instance, Annie Schutte posted an interview with the Diversity Committee on the YALSA’s The Hub blog and there were two comments:
Hannah Gómez said: “We need to make a push to stop calling those books diverse books and multicultural books if want to emphasize that they are for everyone.”
B.A Binns responded: “I have to disagree. The problem of discovery is difficult enough…We have to name them so we can find them.”
I noticed the way these words inspire unnatural phrases such as “coming from a place of a diversity,” “characters that don’t come from a place of diversity themselves.” Eeyike. Awkward. Aren’t we all Word People? Can’t we speak plainly? Do better?
I started thinking about other terms. For instance, when is “African-American” correct? When might one use “black?”
In classic literature for young readers, physical and emotional disabilities often occurred side-by-side and were used to teach lessons on proper attitudes and behavior. For instance, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox’s self-centeredness is made visible through her sickly appearance, and the angry, depressed Colin Craven cannot rise from his wheelchair until he develops a positive attitude. Persons with disabilities appear in classic stories as fundamentally different, less capable of living a full life and contributing to society. It is no wonder that Colin is hidden away in a back bedroom of the hundred-room house; in those days, persons with disabilities were isolated and marginalized, hidden in the back rooms of their own houses or locked away in institutions.
Tell us about your most recent book and how you came to write it.
I just finished writing three new books (one YA, one middle grade and a picture book) that will come out in 2013.
The YA is called The Living. The two main characters (both half Mexican like me) are working on a luxury cruise ship for the summer. While they’re at sea, the “big one” slams California. They have no idea if their border towns have survived. Or their families. And a more immediate concern is that the massive earthquake has unsettled the ocean, as well, endangering the ship. I grew up in southern California, constantly worried about earthquakes, and I’d always wanted to write about what might happen if one of my greatest fears was realized.
The middle grade novel I just finished is part of Scholastic’s Infinity Ring series. It’s called Curse of the Ancients. We were allowed to take our characters back to any part of history. I chose southern Mexico during the heyday of the Maya. It gave me a reason to research this amazing civilization.
The picture book is called Last Stop on Market Street (illustrated by Christian Robinson). It’s about a boy and his grandma riding the bus from church to the soup kitchen where they volunteer on Sundays.
This past weekend, authors Zetta Elliott, Sofia Quintero, and I sat on a panel discussion hosted by librarian and School Library Journal blogger Betsy Bird. The panel, titled Diversity and the State of the Children’s Book, was part of the Children’s Literary Salon series, held at the New York Public Library. About 80 attendees filled the seats, which was a great sign—clearly this is a subject that people across the industry are passionate about, enough to get folks to come out on a chilly Saturday afternoon.
I have to admit, I was a little nervous about the panel. The CBC Diversity Committee discussion at the American Librarian Association Midwinter conference ignited much conversation, including heated debates on online forums and calls for action. I went into the panel knowing that there were two goals in mind—one, talk about why this issue is important to me, as a reader and editor, and two, to stress the importance of keeping the conversation moving forward, rather than having it hindered by criticism.
O, be some other name! What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet;
I recently heard Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas on On the Media with Bob Garfield talking about why he feels it is important to rethink and revise the nomenclature used to describe immigrants lacking the proper paperwork to live and work in this country. (Vargas “came out” as an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times Magazine in 2011.) Most media outlets, and indeed most people, use the term “illegal immigrants” or “illegal aliens” but Vargas is advocating for the use of “undocumented immigrant” because he finds it to be a more accurate term. In the interview he said, “My beef, such as it is, with the term “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” is the fact that they’re inaccurate and imprecise. To be in this country without papers is actually a civil offense, not a criminal one.”
Bob Garfield did not seem entirely convinced (you can read the transcript of the full interview or listen to the audio to get your own take on the exchange) and his push back led Vargas to articulate another aspect of his argument, one that resonated with me a great deal. He said, “Actions are illegal, not people. Can you imagine, like, hearing this word “illegal” and knowing that it refers to you, what that does to somebody?”
After gobbling up L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, I remember asking my sixth grade teacher, “What would life in 1908 have been like for a girl like me?” She paused, turned red and finally admitted that she just didn’t know. The very next day, she had hours’ worth of research to share with me about the Louisiana Purchase and the Spanish-American War, but my 11-year-old heart had already internalized the rub.
People of color are an indelible part of American history, and the books that are created and marketed in schools and libraries have to reflect that. They shouldn’t just be pigeonholed to their respective “Heritage” Month, and forgotten about for the rest of the year, but displayed and celebrated with every topic covered in the curriculum. Gary Soto’s Too Many Tamales can be served alongside Mother’s Day favorite, Are You My Mother? Nikki Giovanni’s poetry collections can accompany J. Patrick Lewis and Shel Silverstein’s during April’s National Poetry month. And though some may posit that these titles don’t exist, there are countless examples of award-winning and well-written books featuring diverse characters for children. There are publishers’ backlists full of important and relevant treasures that can be re-issued, re-packaged, and re-touted to that end. Organizations like CBC Diversity, REFORMA, and all of ALA’s other ethnic associations would serve as great partners to further this endeavor. This should be a continuous conversation, an open dialogue in which all who care about kids participate.